Michael Bird’s Euangelion blog is a constant source of intriguing biblical studies, etc., miscellanea. Yesterday it was Byzantine Star Wars iconography, today it’s Carl Mosser explicating the biblical basis for the supposed doctrine of theosis—roughly the idea that believers, if they stick with the process, eventually become divine. It’s mainly associated with Eastern Orthodoxy, but C.S. Lewis appears to have held the view: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”1
Mosser cites three “proof texts”:
“…by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Pet. 1:4)
I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” (Ps. 82:6–7)
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 Jn. 3:2)
But he argues that really theosis has to do with the whole economy of salvation. God creates humanity in his own image and likeness to have dominion over the earth. Humanity is crowned with glory and honour, with all things subject to them (Ps. 8:5-6). Hebrews applies this text to Jesus (Heb. 2:6-8), who is the “first human being to fully exemplify what it is that God intended for his human creatures to be”.
Mosser gives greatest weight in this brief presentation, however, to “notions of enthronement”. The book of Revelation applies to the redeemed some “very astonishing things that it also applies to the risen and ascended Jesus”. The churches are told that the one who conquers will rule the nations with a rod of iron and will sit on Jesus’ throne—in other words, he will share in Jesus’ glorified reign at the right hand of God (Rev. 2:26-27; 3:21; cf. 12:5; 19:15). Thus the redeemed participate in the eternal state, “ruling and reigning over the vast cosmic order that God has made”. This is where the whole biblical narrative is heading. We are to resemble God in some way, we are to be his physical likeness in the created order, we exercise rule with Christ as redeemed humanity over a redeemed cosmos.
I don’t think that this is a tenable argument.
- The phrase “partakers of the divine nature” in 2 Peter 1:4 has a rather specific meaning: believers have “escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” and will share in the immortality or incorruptibility of the divine nature. If, therefore, they practice virtuous works—qualities associated with the incorruptible divine nature—they will gain “an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (1:11). In other words, they will be identified not with God but with the reign of Jesus—see further below.
- In Psalm 82 YHWH gets to his feet in the divine council and indicts the gods of the nations for failing to defend the weak and needy against the wicked. It’s a wonderful piece of theological theatre. Because of this failure, though gods, they will die like men, and YHWH will inherit the nations from them. Jesus appears to have taken the Psalm differently, but even then the issue is not ontology or identity but authority: ‘The passage refers to the judges of Israel, and the expression “gods” is applied to them in the exercise of their high and God-given office.’2 Jesus rephrases the Jews’ accusation: are you upset because I said, “I am the Son of God”?
- John says that at the parousia or revelation of Jesus “we shall be like him”—that is, we shall be like Jesus (1 Jn. 3:2). This is not theosis. If believers share in the sufferings of Christ, they will also share in the glory of the resurrected Lord (cf. Rom. 8:17, 29; Phil. 3:10-11, 20-21; Col. 3:3-4).
- The point of Hebrews’ use of Psalm 8:5-6 is not that the humanity of Psalm 8 is assimilated into the divinity of Jesus. It is the reverse: Jesus is a human to whom all things have been subjected. The argument is that as a human he will at some point in the future—from the writer’s perspective—be given supreme authority because of his faithful suffering and death.
- It is not the redeemed in general in Revelation, as Mosser assumes, who will share in Christ’s reign at the right hand of God but the martyrs. The “one who conquers” is a martyr who conquers death, as Jesus did (Rev. 3:21); by way of reward he receives the same authority that Jesus received from his Father (Rev. 2:26-27). It is those “beheaded for the testimony of Jesus” who will be raised in a “first resurrection” to reign with Christ for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-5).
- Christ and the martyrs do not reign over a “redeemed cosmos”. Kingdom is required precisely because the cosmos is not redeemed, because there is still sin and hostility. Kingdom comes to an end after the thousand year reign, when the cosmos is finally made new (Rev. 20:6; 21:1; cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-28).
What these passages affirm is not a general theosis or divinization of the redeemed but a quite narrowly conceived inclusion of the early martyr church in the eschatological rule of Christ over the nations throughout the age to come.